(Guest post from Caroline!)

I moved into my new house today to start my job as an au pair. It’s in a very posh satellite town 2 ½ hours outside Sydney and the mother was concerned that I might miss the bright lights of the city.

“Are you sad to leave where you’ve been staying, then?”
I paused for a while, because I am sad to be leaving my friends behind, but the place itself….
“Well, the landlord asked me to marry him a couple of time, once in return for money, he kept hugging me and said our babies would be beautiful, so on the whole, maybe not.”

This isn’t to say that my stay in Sydney wasn’t good; far from it, in fact. And, even my stop with the crazy landlord wasn’t too bad, as long as I was able to sneak past his office without him accosting me. If he did spot me this generally led to a pause in my journey and some overly long hugs. He even invited me out for dinner at one point. Later, I was forced to pressgang J and Milena into promising to come with me if it got to the point where I really couldn’t put him off any longer. Their promises to cut holes in newspapers to keep an eye on me was heartening.

So, I gave a fair report to my new boss about my relief to be leaving Sydney’s weirdest landlord behind, but I am I overjoyed to be hauling arse all the way out here on my own? Not really. The smallish town I’m the newest member of is quite sweet. And, I’m letting the father continue in his vehement and frequent assertions that it “looks just like England”. He’s wrong, but he pays me, so… The town is very proud of the fact that it was originally the summer retreat for rich Sydney gentry with the money and time, and little seems to have changed. Even now, the demographics show the town is largely made up of retirees and empty-nesters. Basically, I appear to have moved into a really large retirement complex. And, I’ll probably survive that; I like how people seem pretty relaxed here and not much actually seems to happen. There’s even a cinema so I probably won’t lose my mind completely, I hope.

The family I’m staying with also seem fine. The parents both have high-powered jobs, hence the need to a live-in nanny, and they keep quite odd hours. Nevertheless, I still (nominally) get two days off a week, a room in a very swanky house and payment. The kids are 2 and 4, and may prove to be quite the handful. Especially if the younger one keeps hitting me and shouting “go way”. Still, I have technically done this before and I can count it as an improvement on last time if nobody jumps up and down on my chest to give me an asthma attack. I’ve even changed some nappies. I feel like I’m on a particularly well-paid paternal internship scheme, the only downsides of which are the isolation and the potential for tantrums and children that leak. I think I can probably handle that.

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taking steps is easy, standing still is hard

Sydney in the spring is gorgeous; the weather is like a perfect British summer almost every day, bright but breezy and not too hot. We had two days of heavy rain (including my building job), as if to remind us of home, before the sun set in again.

Caroline, Milena and I have successfully moved from Chili Blue, which is a bit of a hole, to the Victoria Lodge, which is… not! The showers have doors which lock, the place is reasonably clean and much less decrepit, and we have our own fridge so can cook properly at the shared kitchen, although it only has an electric hob and the mad landlord, Rehutai, is extremely hot on any mess. The local supermarket, Cole’s, has good food for low prices (plastic bread is a dollar a loaf, beef mince is $5/kg, a hundred good Ceylon teabags can be had for slightly under that), and Rehutai (or Billy, as people also call him) at one point gave us a bunch of food. We’ve already settled into a bit of a daily routine, cooking dinner together and spending our evenings drinking tea and eating Tim Tams (Australian Penguin bars) in front of Orange Is The New Black. We spent the weekend relaxing and wandering around, and I saw a couple of interesting museums in the Rocks district, under the shadow of the harbour bridge, but most of the time we’ve been in the King’s Cross library or out at interviews, trying to get jobs.

Which is no more fun than back home. All the remotely civilised paperwork/office jobs, even the temp stuff, seem to hate travellers and won’t take working holiday visas, and pretty much everything else advertised is awful sales/fundraising stuff. I had an interview with one such fundraiser where the bloke interviewing me took me down to a busy pavement and told me I had ten minutes to get personal information out of as many random strangers as possible (I didn’t get the job), and an interview for a cleaning job which turned out to be some sort of dodgy agency trying to get me to pay them eighteen hundred dollars for a “housekeeping internship”. I was so surprised I didn’t even bother to be rude. Caroline managed a single day of a door-to-door job (which sounds a lot like the scam job I interviewed for in Bristol more than a year ago) before quitting. Milena’s just got a street fundraising gig, and I wish her luck with it.

However, after spending most of the last two weeks fruitlessly hunting, I’ve scored employment with an outback roadhouse in Queensland! The hours are far from unpleasant (seven and a half hour shifts, six days on, three days off), the money isn’t bad at all (averages $470 a week after accommodation but before food) and I won’t have anything to spend it on anyway. The place is in a township called “Alpha” and is called “The Alpha Gateway”, which sounds wonderfully science fiction. I looked at buses and trains out – there’s a glorious looking train service called “Spirit of the Outback” – but they were both more expensive and more complicated than a jet to Emerald, the nearest town with an airstrip (more than a hundred miles east along the Capricorn Highway, so-called because it runs very near to the line of the Tropic), from which my new employer G is happy to pick me up. I fly out on Tuesday week to the back of beyond. I’m very excited.

an offer we’d rather refuse

On Saturday morning, we headed again to the King’s Cross library for the already-familiar job application routine. After an hour or two of staring glazed at Gumtree ads and bitching about the job situation with a French chap in the same boat, my phone rang, and a man with an incredibly deep, gravelly voice enquired as to whether I was “interested in roadhouse work, yeah? You’ve got a friend too, right?” Various remote but lucrative outback motel gigs had been among the jobs we’d applied for the previous afternoon.
I said yes, most definitely; he said I should come up to Palm Beach to see him. “It’s a nice trip anyway, worth doing.” This sounded a bit weird to us – why is an outback roadhouse interviewing in a posh outer suburb of Sydney? – but our current job outlook made this a bit of a beggars-choosers situation, and it did sound like a nice trip. After some searching we boarded an L90 bus, which for less than five dollars each took us over the harbour bridge, through Manly (the most amusingly named suburb in the world) and Dee Why (the least imaginatively named suburb in the world), to the lovely Palm Beach. I rang the number again, and that rock-gargling voice told me that he’d “send a bloke called Jonas … sorry, Andreas, to pick you up.”

This again struck us as very strange – what sort of operation were we dealing with? Did they have a stable of German flunkeys? – but we sat on a bench overlooking the beautiful Palm Beach for a while before Andreas, a young blonde lad, appeared and, with a “You’re here for James? I’ll take you to him”, showed us to a rather nice car also containing a bony young chap with a split lower lip. He drove us for five minutes on a winding road through incredibly affluent suburbia while I asked him what exactly this job interview was – he explained that he was part of some sort of group giving backpackers jobs on outback farms and motels, which hadn’t been mentioned on the Gumtree ad.

We arrived at a secluded café overlooking Whale Beach, at which point our day turned from feeling slightly not-quite-right to full-on gangster drama. With a smile and an “after you” Andreas ushered us into the cafe, where the owner of the deep voice sat. He looked like a no-shit kingpin, a huge, meaty man in a muu-muu at the head of a big wooden table, and when he passed us his gold pen to write our names and addresses, it was heavy enough to be actual gold. Various young European backpacker minions – there was no other word for how they acted towards him – took various orders from him; the split-lip lad was asked “did you talk to Susan about it?” and dismissed, and Andreas was sent to chauffeur still more European names around.
The Big Man, totally businesslike, asked us a few questions about our relevant experience and aptitude for the jobs, whether we were good at cooking and cleaning, what sort of salaries we were expecting; then, quite unexpectedly, he started grilling us on our degree subjects in a surprisingly well-informed way. He was effortlessly commanding, clearly well-read and, in retrospect, totally terrifying, though at the time I was just thinking how interesting and unexpected this all was.
“War Studies? What did you specialise in?”
“Thirty Years War, Vietnam War, warfare at sea post-1588.”
“And what do you think of the Thirty Years War that wasn’t really thirty years at all?”
“I think the effect of the ‘Westphalian settlement’ is highly overstated; it wasn’t all subsequently small professional armies in nice, civilised, low-collateral warfare, especially if you look towards the Ottoman-Habsburg front, which was much more state-on-state indiscriminate destruction-”
“And on the subject of indiscriminate destruction, what do you think of chemical weapons Agent Orange? Napalm?”
“Hah, Agent Orange isn’t even technically a weapon-“
“Do you think it’s civilised to poison people from the sky or set them alight so they crawl on their bellies, burning, begging for mercy?”
“Do you think it’s civilised to shoot a piece of copper-jacketed lead into a man so fast that it explodes into sharp fragments that tear his insides apart? Are we pretending here that there’s a nice way to make war?” (I’ve been arguing about this lately anyway, so I had all my lines prepped.)

“Why do you think Athens won the Peloponnesian War?”
“Well, really what I studied was ancient Greek art. Not really big on wars. Ask me about statues and things.”
“Who do you prefer, Cleon or Aristophanes?”
“Cleon.”
“Why?”
“Oh, I don’t know!”

Finally, seemingly satisfied with our knowledge of ancient Greece and various warry topics, he suggested peremptorily that we would love the walk up to the lighthouse at the end of Palm Beach, that it was a real treat, that it’s where they film Home and Away doncha know, and took us to his car to drive us a little way towards it. On the way, he pointed out a house where backpackers working for his organisation were apparently kept, and cafes where they worked. I asked whether he was in this sort of business for income or fun, and whether they got a cut from the people who ended up employing backpackers; he said for fun, dissembled a bit on a different subject, and then said that the amount depended on “how much they earn, how much they like the jobs”, which seemed to be hinting that we were expected to be paying him for finding jobs.

Caroline’s shoes were totally inadequate for the walk up to the lighthouse, so I went ahead on my own with a pair of friendly Aussies; it was much steeper than it looked, and everything else that day had been so surreal I half wondered if this was an initiation ritual, and the Pin was watching me through a long lens from his hillside palace, or that Andreas would be leaning out of a helicopter when I got there, offering me a cigar and welcoming me to the Fraternity. But there was nothing except a fairly small, nicely made stone lighthouse, some glorious views of the coast to the north, and a selection of New South Wales wildlife – some little millipedes, a sort of turkey-looking thing, a bird that one of the Aussies identified as a magpie when she saw me looking at it (but isn’t at all like British magpies; it just looked like a jackdaw with white bits to me.) On the descent, I saw a bulldog ant, and as I brought my phone camera down to take a picture she assumed a fighting stance, mandibles flaring – as well as being huge, terrifying and (for ants) lethal, their vision is superb. The sunset as I walked back was utterly gorgeous.

“We are not working for that man.”
“Look, we don’t have any options at the moment, and I’m not going to rule him out just because that felt EXACTLY like a scene from a gangster movie-”
“Do you even listen to the things that come out of your mouth?”

underneath an eastern moon

The staff at Sydney airport were friendly, cheerful, and highly paranoid about us bringing plants or animals into the country; I declared the tube of jaffa cakes I’d bought for Milena at the first stage (though risked a legal debate by calling them “chocolate biscuits”). Although there were queues, forms and honest-to-goodness sniffer dogs, unlike at Delhi, it was all very efficiently done, and we were out and blinking in the morning sun before you can say “welcome to Oz, mate”. We boarded a shuttle bus half full of porky Iowans with Make-A-Wish t-shirts, and listened to Aussie radio on the way into town.

The streets are broad here, and the vehicles bigger than back home; the average car isn’t that different, but there’s a greater preponderance of 4x4s, hefty pickup trucks, and lorries with those enormous long engine housings that you just don’t see in Europe, as well as double-trailer road-trains. Our hostel was a cheerfully decrepit joint called “Chili Blue”, located in a place called “King’s Cross”; Oz is absolutely full of British place names in weird combinations (I once spent an evening searching for them; my favourite was that they had an Islington in Newcastle.) The King’s Cross of the antipodes is a funny mix of costly, highbrow bijou establishments, run-down backpacker holes, and titty bars; the local high street is about 50% massage parlours and strip joints with some shiny corporatish buildings, nice hipster coffee shops and innocuous mini-marts mixed in. Chili Blue is just one of a clutch of hostels and hotels lining Victoria Street in varying degrees of downmarket, but there are a few expensive hair and coffee boutiques just across the road; further down, it turns into a really quite nice residential street with big cars parked outside quiet, expensive houses with pretty front gardens. A bit past that, there’s a huge naval base. It’s a funny old place.

Although shattered, we elected to stick out the day to get into the Australian day-night cycle. We found a tea shop to restore our English souls, and a little place with cabinets full of novelty lighters, polystone dragons, old military headgear and cutting-edge smartphones to buy some SIM cards for our phones; the hostel comes with computers we can use for free, which unusually for public computers are actually serviceable machines, but they’re busy most of the time and the hostel’s wifi is basically unusable. Next on the list was setting up some accounts with the Commonwealth Bank, and lunch at a place just across the road which for $7 piled our plates high with more-than-decent curry. A bombastic older bloke with a white moustache came in just after us, and asking him what the big roll of paper hanging from his back was (just drawing paper for an art class he was heading to) led somehow to a sustained chinwag about the British Indian Army and various old barrack buildings. People here are fun.

Our new SIM cards were working for text purposes, but we couldn’t get any net on them, so we went back to the zippos’n’stahlhelms place to ask for help; after a brief display of bravura phone-wizardry, our phones were singing with notifications, and I could finally message Milena (who’s been travelling all over the world, but right now is in the same hostel) to tell her we were here. We met up and shot the breeze about Stuff In General, shared our jaffa cakes, made ourselves some tea in the common room, where Kingdom of Heaven was playing (we mocked it mercilessly), and went out to eat at a place called “Vibe’s”, where I had a huge chicken caesar burger, and headed back to Chili Blue to, at long last, sleep.

On Friday we got up bright and early, had a perfunctory Chili Blue breakfast (toast x2, egg x1, processed cheese slice x2, tea xunlimited), packed our laptops into a backpack and headed into town, planning to find a coffee shop with wifi and get job huntin’. We passed St Mary’s Cathedral, which is lovely; it reminds me of the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, in being a historic design (in this case, glorious High Gothic), but built comparatively recently with no expense spared. Unlike cathedrals back home, most of which grew gradually part by part like an ammonite shell and sport a thousand years of wear and tear, it was built from the ground up in one sitting, and it gleams.

After wandering amusedly through a very high-end shopping centre, we made the requisite pilgrimage to the opera house, and wandered around the southern pylon of the bridge to lie on the grass and inspect the battery of old cannon there, then strolled back to Circular Quay to find a Starbucks, which was like every other Starbucks in the world. Unfortunately, having bought our very overpriced (but admittedly really nice; they always have a great blend) tea, we found that this only got us half an hour of wifi, which we mostly used finding some real wifi spots. One of which turned out to be nearby, at the Customs House Library, where we went to chill until our laptop batteries ran out, researching employment.

We headed back towards King’s Cross via the Botanical Gardens, which were brimful of tree-ferns and various other weird and wonderful plants, and whose signs endearingly tell you to “PLEASE WALK ON THE GRASS –we also invite you to smell the roses, hug the trees, talk to the birds, and picnic on the lawn.” We got some meat pies on the walk back, then located the King’s Cross public library (which we’d walked past before, but barely noticed as it was sandwiched between two strip joints), where we spent the entire evening submitting job applications.

with a toorali oorali addity

Our flight was scheduled for 12:30, so the logical journey out to the airport coincided rather uncomfortably with rush hour. The first two tube trains to arrive at the (attractively old-world yet lethally small) single central platform of Clapham Common station were so rammed that we dared not board them with our luggage, but the third was merely uncomfortably intimate, and a couple of changes took us to Heathrow. Our ride for the first leg out to Delhi was an Air India 787, ever so slightly smoother and more organic-looking than the standard jetliner, its huge engine nacelles sporting the trademark shark-tooth edges. The interior was swish and advanced, in that clean white science-fiction style. I was assigned an aisle seat, but appropriated a window for takeoff; the plane was barely more than half full.

Shortly after takeoff, the windows all tinted themselves dark blue and the cabin lighting dimmed, giving the curious feeling of dusk at one in the afternoon. Caroline immediately curled up in her seat and dozed off. At around 2pm Zulu time the crew broke out the shrink-wrapped chicken curry; notwithstanding the uncomfortably contemporary use-by dates, it was delicious. A portly Sikh gentleman in the next aisle, more salt than pepper in his magnificent beard, asked one of the staff to take a photo of him tucking into his prepackaged dinner; why, I have no idea.

“We’re flying Air India the whole way, right?”
“Yep!”
“GOOD.”

Between the warmth of the cabin, the low light and the white noise of the engines and air system quietly roaring all around, the plane had a soporific effect, and I claimed an unoccupied row of three seats and wrapped myself in one of the issue blankets, napping until a patch of turbulence over the eastern shore of the Black Sea woke me, upon which I plugged my laptop in and played some Civ.

“Welcome to Delhi. Local time is 1:01 AM, temperature is thirty degrees celsius.” Coming into Delhi at the witching hour was very curious; on the approach I could see suburb-sized islands of orange streetlight against a sea of utter black, most but not all of them linked by lit roads. I have no idea whether the black was greenery, open land, or whatever else. Must look that up on Google Maps when I have a decent connection. The seal where the passenger gantry met the hull wasn’t perfect and, passing from one sanitised, air-conditioned box of metal and glass to another, I caught a fleeting taste of Indian air.

Our Australian Working Holiday Visas were booked entirely online, with our passport number loaded into the database that connects all those fun futuristic passport scanner things. This worked fine at Heathrow, where they simply scanned the passport and let us through; unfortunately, they didn’t have a scanner at Delhi, and we spent ten or fifteen fairly tense minutes watching and waving various bits of visa documentation while a young Indian bloke frantically battered at his computer and talked into three different phones, a handful of other young Indian blokes lounged around doing nothing in particular, and the rather older section chief examined the differences between my old-style and Caroline’s new-style passport in a leisurely fashion, stroking his tache. But all came good and, clutching our biro-scribbled boarding passes, we passed through a touchy-feely security station and into the bowels of the terminal.

Indira Gandhi Airport is clean and modern, and, like airports everywhere, is like airports everywhere; long arrays of tumblehome windows look down onto the tarmac and the runway beyond, staff with downturned eyes and TEAM HOUSEKEEPING on their uniform jackets pick rubbish from the grubby carpets and semi-comfortable seats, the standard-issue array of duty-free cutpurses stand ready to sate a possibly imaginary demand for “luxury goods” twenty-four hours a day. A food court mezzanine held various sustenance outlets underneath a paisley-pattern hoarding backlit with shifting patterns of saffron and violet light; a cup of tea was 75 rupees, a chickenburger and chips 250. The McDonalds there had a plaque proudly proclaiming it a pork and beef free zone, and everything at the chicken joint next door was spicy, including the mayo and the fries. Over the course of the twelve-hour stopover, we went slowly insane.

“Biccie?”
“NOM!”
“AUGH!”
“I wanted a biscuit, I didn’t want you to stick your fingers down my throat!”
“You bit me!”
“I thought you were a biscuit!”

Dawn came slowly and mistily over the tarmac, some huge broad-winged soaring bird circling slowly above the terminal and the rows of patiently waiting jetliners with their red-and-orange sunburst tails. The next plane was another 787, but it was filled to bursting, mostly tetchy old Indian babushkas who pushed, shoved, elbowed, thwacked you with blankets and at one point elbowed me in the side of the head. Between that and the staggeringly incompetent repeated boarding pass checking procedures, the next stage was far less congenial, but we were mostly too sleep-deprived to care. The plane flew to Melbourne (which we hadn’t quite realised was part of the plan), everyone got off and then about half of us got on again. The skyscraper-tips of the city’s CBD could be seen distantly above a couple of hangars. The plane rose a little after dawn, and flew for an hour above a vast rumpled landscape of dark green grassland, darker green forest, and steep-sided valleys still filled with low cloud; then at last, wearily, thirty-two hours after taking off, we arrived at Sydney.